July 25th is Constitution Day on the island of Puerto Rico, marking the 60th anniversary of the commonwealth. Coincidentally, July 25th also marks the 114th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War of 1898.
The two events are directly related and continue to exert their influence over the people of Puerto Rico to this day.
There’s little use in discussing the invasion, except to say that the people welcomed it as the end of Spanish-style colonialism and the coming of American-style democracy. Puerto Ricans quickly realized that they had shaken off Spanish-style colonialism, only to don American-style colonialism.
The focus here is on the constitution, if one can call it that. I was under the impression that a society was constituted by its people and its people alone — that a constitution not based solely on the consent of the people had no force (outside of violence) to make them obey. I guess I’ve been reading too much Rousseau.
The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, its official name, is a complete farce. It’s neither a constitution, nor does it create a commonwealth. In reality, it is a set of Congressional guidelines for governing a Caribbean colony. And it is a Congressional act — perhaps penned by Puerto Ricans, yes, but it exists by the will of Congress. And since Congress itself is of Americans, by Americans, for Americans, a Puerto Rican constitution dependent on the will of Congress cannot possibly be labeled democratic or said to be in the best interests of the island. Colonialism, even when it’s benevolent, is never in the best interests of a people.
Luis Muñoz Marín, the island’s first democratically-elected governor who was actively involved in decolonizing Puerto Rico for much of his career, said as much when he spoke before the Senate: “Kindness, even justice, unilaterally bestowed, may denote an anticolonialistic spirit, but it does not finally and decisively create an anticolonial status.”
Besides the fact that Puerto Rico is, as a former chief justice of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court put it, “subject to the untrammeled will of Congress,” the Puerto Rican Constitution offends in other ways.
A Puerto Rican constitutional convention had included in its draft a bill of rights that would’ve recognized “the right to social protection in the event of unemployment, sickness, old age, or disability; the right to obtain work; the right to an adequate standard of living; and the rights of mothers and children to special care and assistance.” Although it mirrored the UN Declaration of Human Rights championed by the United States, Congress voted to remove the section.
As it stands, the Puerto Rican Constitution cannot be changed without the approval of Congress — that’s not the exact wording of the law, but that is, in effect, the reality. At times, the authority of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, which is appointed by the people of Puerto Rico and whose role it is to interpret Puerto Rican law, has even been superseded by the federal courts, whose judges are not appointed by the Puerto Rican people.
This November, Puerto Ricans will go to the polls not only to choose new representatives in government, but decide how much authority their government will have in future lives. Voters will hold the fate of Puerto Rico literally in their hands.
When he spoke before the Senate in 1952, Muñoz Marín begged his people to see the light of justice:
“It is unthinkable that a free people, a people worthy of American citizenship, should deliberately go to the polls and vote for a status that they conceive as one of inequality.”
One only hopes that, as they cast their votes in November, Puerto Ricans will hold the dream of Puerto Rican freedom in their minds and in their hearts.